Camping 101: Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Overnight Trip

From where to go to what to pack, adventure awaits with a few essentials in tow.

camping tent opening to forest outdoors
Photo: Robin Stamm / EyeEm via Getty

Whether it's an excuse to take a break from cell phone reception or your favorite way to dive even deeper into nature, the idea of taking a camping trip appeals to many people-even those who've never done it before. "Camping is a great way to unwind from the stress of everyday life," says Marley Behnke, owner of Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Caledonia, California. "I love that it gives you a chance to slow down, reconnect with friends and family, and enjoy the world around us."

But for novice campers, there's a lot to learn. Ahead, camping experts share their top tips for a successful outdoor adventure, from what to pack to how to find the right campsite.

Where to Go

Before you pack your sleeping bag and tent, you'll first need to find a place to set up camp. Chris Clearman, founder of Matador, a company that makes adventure gear, says his favorite online resource is Free Campsites. "It allows you to search by region and lists both free and paid campsites. Each listing includes reviews, directions, and photos, allowing you to find the optimal site for you." But perhaps the best place to find national and state parks are through government sites, says Sabrina Young, outdoors and national parks series manager at Avalon Travel. Young relies on the National Forest Service to find campgrounds, "which are usually less crowded, but still have great amenities," she says. Or, "if you're willing to rough it, the Bureau of Land Management has remote campsites with few, if any, amenities."

When choosing a campground, "look for ones that have the fewest number of campsites, someplace where the access road doesn't permit RVs or trailers, and where the sites are a bit primitive-maybe no water," Young recommends. Why? "Though these campgrounds do fill, they won't fill as fast and they tend to be quieter once they do," she explains.

What to Pack

Camping trips and campgrounds are unique and call for different supplies, but there are some things every camper needs no matter where they're headed. Unless you're staying in a cabin, you'll need to pack a tent. "Choose a well-made tent that fits you and your camping partner, and that is easy to put up," says Young. If you like a little extra room when you sleep, Clearman recommends sizing-up. "Most tents are a little on the small side," he warns, "so a one-person generally only fits one person and no gear. I prefer to sleep in a two-person tent so I can fit a little gear in with me." Temperatures drop overnight, so it's important to keep warm and comfortable with a sleeping bag, which is the best guarantee for a good night's rest on your trip. Choosing the right sleeping bag requires time, research, and money, and it's not a piece of gear you want to skimp on. To make sure you'll be warm enough, be sure to read up on sleeping bags' temperature ratings. They'll state on the packaging the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep a sleeper warm. Clearman says that you should always err on the side of caution: "If you're going somewhere with a low of 30 degrees, you may want a bag that is rated to 20 [degrees]." You'll also need a pillow-and you may also want to bring a sleeping pad to make the ground feel a bit softer.

Depending on where you're camping, you might also need to bring in your own water. "Many campsites are off the grid and offer no access to clean water," Clearman says. As a rule of thumb, you should pack at least one gallon of water per day, per person. "And if you'll be having a fire, bring several more gallons to extinguish the fire," he adds. Speaking of fire, you'll need the essentials for that, too-and not just for a bonfire to roast marshmallows over. At some campgrounds, you have to cook over a fire. As a novice, you may not be able to easily start a fire, so be sure to pack a starter log to help you along, Clearman recommends, plus a lighter and matches, which serve as a backup.

You should also pack a flashlight or a headlight to guide your way in the dark, says Clearman. (Be sure to bring along extra batteries, too.) And Behnke recommends bringing glow sticks if you are camping with children or pets. "Put them on at night so you can always see them," he says. It's also important to bring bug and animal repellants, which are available commercially or can be made at home. "You can ward off bugs naturally by mixing tea tree oil with water in a spray bottle," says Behnke, who adds that "burning dried sage in your campfire will also keep pests away." And, if you're camping in a place with a bear population, don't forget to pack bear spray. Last but not least, you'll also want to carry along a quality first-aid kit. Cuts and bumps are bound to occur while you're camping, so make sure you have plenty of bandages, gauze, and any medications you might need, Clearman says.

What to Eat

When it comes to cooking while camping, less is best, our experts say. "You can get by with pretty minimal cooking gear while camping," says Clearman, listing sporks-which serve a dual purpose-a pot to boil water and cook in, and a bowl to prepare food (and eat out of) as the three essential things you won't be able to cook without. But, "another super easy way of cooking is throwing hot dogs on skewers and roasting them over the fire," he says. "And a cast iron pan can open a opportunities for steaks, casseroles, cobblers, and more." Coffee drinkers may want to bring a mug along, too, and prepare instant coffee with boiling water. "Or bring a French press if you're looking to glamp it up," Clearman suggests.

For breakfast, eat eggs-but don't pack whole eggs, suggests Behnke. Instead, you should "make a scrambled egg mix before you leave," he says. "Just crack eggs into zipper bags, adding whatever ingredients you like. At camp, boil them in the bag on your fire, grill, or stove for 13 minutes." (Liquid pancake mix is another option.) For lunch, "you can pre-cut and bag meats, pre-cooked pasta, fruit, and veggies to save time and space." If you have room to pack them, Clearman says that sauces and spices can elevate any meal you make. "Salt, pepper, and sriracha are three of my favorite go-tos," Clearman says. And lastly, be sure to "bring snacks that you don't have to heat up," says Young. "Maybe the weather prevents a fire and cooking on a stove. Or you're just tired. But you can still eat."

What to Wear

What you wear while camping is all about utility, not fashion. "Don't wear any clothes that you're worried about getting dirty," says Clearman. "Anything worn around the fire will inevitably get a few holes in it from sparks," and mud and dirt are guaranteed to end up on any clothes you wear while hiking. Athletic clothes are smart to bring because they wick away sweat and moisture, and are breathable. "It's best to avoid cotton if you'll be out adventuring around," says Clearman. "Cotton takes forever to dry and provides no warmth when wet. Instead, shoot for wool or synthetic-based clothing, which continue to provide warmth, even if damp or wet."

Young recommends packing layers so that you're prepared for any weather you might encounter, warm or cold. And in addition to your daily clothes, she lists these items as camping essentials: a sun hat and a fleece beanie for the cold; trail shoes and Smartwool socks (from $19.95,; a rain, fleece, and down jackets; and a bandana. When you pack your clothing, here's a last tip from Behnke: "Place each individual camper's clothes in (reusable) zipper bags, using one bag for each day. This saves time unpacking and reduces clutter in your tent, cabin, or RV. It also makes it a snap for kids to get dressed each day."

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